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Half of Illinois’ 20 largest firms are headed by women — here’s what they had to say

Half of Illinois’ 20 largest firms are headed by women — here’s what they had to say - Photo by Lisa Predko

Update: Locke Lord LLP’s information was omitted from the original version of the chart. It has been corrected.


When Baker & McKenzie managing partner Regine Corrado showed up for her first day at work at a small firm in Hamburg, Germany, she was shown her new desk — in the typing pool.

“They said, ‘We never had a female attorney, and we don’t think women should have offices, so here’s the typing pool,’” Corrado said.

In the late 1990s, then-associate Britt Miller was one of two women at a 25-person joint defense meeting at a law firm in Washington, D.C. The other woman was a paralegal.

“One of the men in the meeting turned, he had no idea who I was, and he asked me to get him a cup of coffee,” said Miller, who was named managing partner of Mayer Brown’s Chicago office in January. “I was a little taken aback but I thought ‘OK, fine. I was going to get a cup for myself. Not a big deal.’ I kind of laughed internally because it was going to be amusing when he finally realized who I was.”

Miller said it was amusing. And the man apologized profusely.

But being a woman in Big Law brings opportunity as well.

“I received a cold call from a woman in-house lawyer who knew of me by reputation and asked me to substitute in for the company’s long-standing class-action counsel in a major class action,” said Marci Eisenstein, managing partner of Schiff Hardin.

“The lawyer I was asked to replace was a male partner at a large firm who did not listen to his female client, who felt he knew better and who declined to work or consult with a female subject-matter expert the client had assigned to the team. The in-house counsel was tired of feeling marginalized and turned to me. I listened, worked with her and her team and it was the start of a 20-year relationship that continues through today.”

Ten of the 20 largest firms in Illinois — including five of the top 10 — have women as managing partner, partner-in-charge or co-managing partner of their Chicago offices. But those numbers aren’t reflected down the line, according to the results of Chicago Lawyer magazine’s 2019 Diversity Survey of the 100 largest firms in Illinois.

We spoke to all 10 on topics ranging from the programs their firms offer to retain and promote women to their own experiences as women in law. Here’s what they had to say.

Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.

Regine W. Corrado
Baker & McKenzie, managing partner of the Chicago office

We really would like, over time, to have at least 40 percent of national partners be women, 30 percent of equity partners, 30 percent of leadership. These [Global Aspirational Gender Targets] that we implemented have really resulted in a lot of growth for us. One of our many programs, Role Model, is a video initiative where we video-record our most senior women telling their stories about what their issues were and how they encountered and overcame them and how they enjoy their roles. These are showed to men and upcoming women. And telling these stories really makes the issues that women face so much more powerful, and saying that things need to change, and that’s important for us. And that, again, goes to the point that we expect our men to watch these videos, and become better mentors, sponsors, and in certain cases, better fathers. And so that all kind of goes hand-in-hand.

Linda T. Coberly
Winston & Strawn, managing partner of the Chicago office

While firms can and should provide support for lawyers raising families, we must make sure that our policies do not perpetuate the myth that child-rearing is a women’s issue and incompatible with a high-performance career — a myth that still persists in our profession and continues to stand in the way of opportunity for women. That is why our firm adopted a truly gender-neutral parental leave program, which provides the same generous amount of leave for all of our lawyers, regardless of gender. Our male attorneys want to be involved parents too. And the reality is that women do better in work environments where men too take parental leave.

Britt M. Miller
Mayer Brown, partner-in-charge of the Chicago office

I think we provide better legal services when we can provide a diverse group of ideas. Being able to foster and present to our clients a diverse team can only enrich the overall service to our clients. Having a homogeneous perspective, I don’t think gets you the best answer. We need to listen better than we did 10, 15, 20 years ago, and listen to women and diverse candidates. We need to understand to the best of our ability what it is that they want out of their careers because it may be different than we wanted 10 or 15 years ago or it may not be. We are doing better but the legal profession as a whole can do more.

Teresa Wilton Harmon
Sidley Austin, managing partner of the Chicago office

I received a great opportunity to represent a client on billions of dollars of deals while I was expecting my second child. I worried I would have to turn down the work, but Sidley gave me the mentoring, flexibility and support I needed to do a fantastic job for the client and my family. It was hard to imagine how I could handle both but that mentorship, support and flexibility all made a difference. My mentor helped me figure out how to take on the work while still having time for my family. That was all part of the firm recognizing the value I could bring to the client and the firm at the time.

Amanda A. Sonneborn
Seyfarth Shaw, co-managing partner of the Chicago office

We have a bunch of programs designed around and that sit on different tracks. One track relates to helping manage motherhood and being in Big Law, and the other is sponsorship for women generally in the office regardless of whether you’re a mom. For the mentorship program, we have a program that pairs up members of the executive committee and members of the firm with high-potential women and minority attorneys throughout the firm. That gives them a one-on-one opportunity for help and support throughout their career. We have cadres of women participating to help them get over hurdles and to help them get from partner to equity partner. I think there are two fundamental issues with women in Big Law. One relates to promotion, where women are statistically equal to men in law schools since the ’80s, but we don’t see that statistic bearing out in terms of equity partnership in Big Law.

Marci A. Eisenstein
Schiff Hardin, firm managing partner

We know that developing a future generation of women leaders starts with a solid pipeline out of law schools. We created a panel interview process for law students and lateral associates that uses standardized behavioral interview questions. It was specifically designed to mitigate the implicit biases that can plague more ‘traditional’ interview formats. We also remain focused on increasing gender diversity in our lateral partner hiring. In the past two years, 75% of our equity partner hires have been women, and women now represent 23% of the equity partnership. More than 20 years ago, Schiff Hardin established the Women’s Networking Group to create opportunities for women lawyers at the firm. The group hosts career advancement and mentoring programs, internal and external networking events and a wide range of business development initiatives.

Cathy A. Birkeland
Latham & Watkins, managing partner of the Chicago office

Based on what we see at Latham, what we see happening is that when women leave, they’re not going to other law firms. They tend to be going for in-house positions. When men leave, there’s more men looking to lateral to other law firms in Big Law. One of the challenges women face in Big Law is many of the practice areas are male-dominated. Many of the decision-makers are men. At corporations, the number of female general counsel is increasing. I do think business development has been a challenge for many women. I know I found it challenging and maybe because I don’t have the networks of, whether it’s female colleagues or friends who are in the position to hire me in terms of being hired by Big Law firms.

Rita M. Powers
Greenberg Traurig, co-managing shareholder of the Chicago office

I think overall, the most important thing is three words — opportunity, opportunity, opportunity. I think involving women and in pitches, involving women in more high profile projects, and more meaningful projects and cases, promoting them even maybe into better leadership positions. I think as women they want to succeed. And when they have those experiences, they draw more satisfaction from their job. I think it justifies the sacrifices that you have to make, male or female, to be in this profession. And so I really think the most important thing to do to retain and promote women, while you have to have all those programs, nobody in Big Law would not have all those programs, I think the more important thing is really to inspire and give women opportunities so they don’t want to leave the profession, and so that there’s career satisfaction.

Diane Webster
Hinshaw & Culbertson, partner-in-charge of the Chicago office

We try to identify up-and-comers [through Hinshaw’s Women Affinity Network], rising star associates that we want to get behind to really focus our efforts in helping them become noncapital or nonequity partners, and ultimately to equity status, which is the goal for each and every single one of them. We have social events throughout the year where we get together. They are fun events where you are encouraged to get to know each other so that we can essentially build our own network that men oftentimes take for granted. We try to create this internal network that we hope will become strong and organic such that these women attorneys can work together to build business externally. The reason that is important is because if you want to have a seat at the table, you have to have an independent book of business and I think it’s through those leadership roles that you are going to get there.

Tina M. Tabacchi
Jones Day, partner-in-charge of the Chicago office

Law firms should continue providing opportunities for all lawyers to develop the skills that they need to advance in their careers, conduct merit-based assessments of performance, support flexibility that enables attorneys to take time away from work and make promotion decisions that reflect the full contribution of each lawyer beyond billings and collections. Having women in positions of leadership in law firms can only help young women in the profession more easily see a path to success for themselves. There are so many great lawyers — men and women — who mentored me and generally shaped so much of my professional life. As much as I am grateful to them for teaching me how to become a lawyer, I am also grateful for the example they set in their commitment to their families and life outside of work. I hope that I can provide the same for those lawyers coming up behind me.